I have always enjoyed reading but recently I have been reading much more fiction than usual. It started with Harry Potter. I had begun reading those over the summer and petered out somewhere in the middle of the third book. With a renewed sense of vigor I tore through them just before thanksgiving and finished the series thereafter. Then on a whim I read the Hunger Games series. Currently I am finishing another series that I began after that, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.
The books I have read have been thoroughly enjoyable, each for their own reason. In Harry Potter I have to say it was the story of Snape that intrigued me the most. To be able to love someone so much that you dedicate your life to protecting the child they had with another man speaks volumes as to what it means to love the unloveable. The Hunger Games reminded me that heroes never come out unscathed. Those things from the past carry on through life. But it is the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that has been the most surprising of the novels. I can’t quite put into words what it is, but those novels held my attention better than the others and in some ways they are the least relatable to my life.
In thinking about why that might be I came to the conclusion that it could be the interconnectivity of everything. These seemingly separate characters all come together to tell a story. A story about life in its most vitriolic expressions. I have never been one to gravitate to fiction writing, unless it was historical fiction, but in recent weeks this push to read fiction has caused me more and more to see the value in it. Telling a story is a difficult task. Working out the connections, bringing things from one point to another, creating the world in which the story takes place, and all the while keeping me interested in it is a task that only a few have really been able to make it look easy.
Concurrent with my reading of fiction has come my yearly dose of Christmas music, only I tend to keep it to one group, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. No group tells a story like they do. If you ever have the time, visit their website and listen to their albums while reading the story that takes place between the songs. Something about their writing speaks not only to the Christmas spirit that seems to come and go every year, but also the hopes and dreams of humanity. Combine story telling with an eye for the season and those things which humanity hopes for and you have a cocktail for excellence, one which that group feasts upon.
While the most famous of their albums tells a fascinating story about an angel’s visit to earth, it is the album entitled, The Lost Christmas Eve, that has captured my attention in recent days. As often happens, one song among the many has really garnered a voice, forcing itself to be heard on repeat all day. What Child is This? is an appropriation of the hymn only the subject isn’t exactly Jesus Christ, rather, it is the son of the man the album’s story is telling. Having found the son he once abandoned this man is expressing what might become of his son and their relationship. It is a song of hope, a song that reminds people of the possibilities of the future.
The Christmas season somehow always gives way to this notion that all things can begin again. People approach the world differently, if only for a moment. And as Christmas passes New Years is eagerly anticipated as the coming year has yet to be written. Only as the calendar turns from one day to the next that hope fades and the harshness of reality rears its ugly head. Bills still need to be paid. Food still needs to be put on the table. Work needs to be done. Books read and papers written. One day rolls into the next and before you know it you are back in the Christmas seasons hoping somehow the next year will be different. Only inside you know it holds more of the same.
It is the cruel joke of life, false hope. Relying on some inherently flawed notion presents a worldview that, while it may taste good, makes you vomit in the end. We all do it. I can change x or z and my life will get better. If I read this or that I’ll have the right tools to work through life. But even when x and z change, life is still a struggle, only it might be a different struggle. The tools you gained are now no longer the ones you need. The cruel joke gets replayed over and over again yielding the same results.
This is not to say that life is devoid of hope or that one does not have the ability to change their situation in life, far from it. I am embracing this fact and pushing it further because as each obstacle is overcome, a new one presents itself. It won’t ever stop until our breath stops. What I am challenging is the notion that we expect it to. We think that this next one will be the last, that is the great joke, our yearning for it to be done. But why? Why are we so concerned with a life void of struggle? A life where we actually have the ability to measure up? Right now I don’t know if that is something that actually exists, at least this side of eternity.
In Lutheran circles there is a phrase, the law always accuses. It is a reminder that we will never have the ability to stand up based on our merit because the law of God is a continual reminder of our failures. So then, what are we to do in the face of such a notion? Sin boldly. But trust in God’s grace even more boldly. This oft quoted passage from Luther are truly words to live by because they remind us that while the law always accuses, God’s grace outdistances the law in every way. It puts the law in its place.
It is fitting to be reminded of this at Christmas time. That first Christmas saw God enfleshed in a child. It was a beginning, a beginning of the end of the power of sin, death, and the devil. A beginning that has since fostered other beginnings. For in Christ humanity begins again, no longer defined by her inability to follow the law, but by the Word of God spoken at the cross. It begins again at the manger. It begins again at the cross. It begins again at the resurrection. It begins again in Baptism and Holy Communion. It begins again in the realization that no matter what you have done, you are not defined by it. It begins again when you are reminded that God has declared you righteous on account of Christ. It begins again when we realize that no special combination of actions guarantees an easy life. And that beginning gives way to another, a life lived not for oneself but for the other. At Christmastime it is easier to think of the other, but in the New Year celebration this is often forgotten. And when it is, we must begin again. Because in our beginning we have the chance to care for others not because we have to, but because we can. Because we don’t have to worry about who takes care of us. Because we have been given the chance to begin again.